Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"On the Twentieth Century"

The first time I listened to the original cast recording of On the Twentieth Century was in April 2001. I can recall this because it was the first time I ever went to New Paltz, NY, where I ended up going to college. I had been borrowing a lot of cast albums over the previous weeks from the local library, hearing scores like Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, The Secret Garden, She Loves Me and many others for the first time. The reason I had picked it up was because the musical originally starred the late, great Madeline Kahn in a high coloratura soprano role. That was enough to make me go "Hmm!"

On the Twentieth Century was based on Twentieth Century, a 1930s play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacDonald (itself a reworking of Charles Bruce Millholland's unproduced Napoleon of Broadway about his experienced working under flamboyant impresario David Belasco) and probably most famous as the Howard Hawks' 1934 screwball comedy film classic starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. The story centers around a flamboyant impresario (go figure) named Oscar Jaffee, who is down on his luck as a producer and director. Facing flop after flop, he is determined to win back his own Galatea, an Oscar winning Hollywood star Lily Garland, who was once his former lover. The play (and musical) is mostly set aboard the 20th Century Ltd, a luxury liner train that used to run between Chicago and NYC in 16 hours.

Anyway, the ride got off to a great start as I listened to what is one of the most unique and well orchestrated overtures in the entire musical theatre canon. When I say this is a phenomenal overture, I mean it I repeated it immediately. The overture just screams of farce and operetta. It was love at first listen. The score (by Cy Coleman and Comden & Green) has become one of my all-time favorites.

Joining Madeline Kahn were John Cullum, Imogene Coca and Kevin Kline. The show opened at the St. James Theatre in NY in 1978. The show was a big critical success, earning kudos for its screwball antics, pastiche operetta-spoof score, the performances. Robin Wagner received incredible acclaim for his Art Deco flavored set design. Direction was provided by Harold Prince in a rare musical comedy project (musical theatre of the 1970s was all but defined by his darker conceptual collaborations with Stephen Sondheim).

The show also had the distinct privilege of bringing Judy Kaye to the forefront of musical theatre actresses. She was hired by Prince as an understudy for Kahn. However, Kahn was having vocal problems (evident at certain points on the original cast album) and left the production two months after the opening night, with Kaye taking over the lead (in the "overnight star sensation" mold), though there have been long established rumors of clashes with Prince. Kaye received the Theatre World award and a nomination from the Drama Desk awards for her performance. However, the awkward came from the Tony committee - they nominated Kahn, as per their rules that only the originator of a role can receive the nomination (the only exception to this rule was Larry Kert, who replaced Dean Jones early in Company).

The musical won five Tony awards. Best Actor for Cullum, Best Featured Actor for Kevin Kline, Book, Score and Set Design. Best Musical went to Ain't Misbehavin'. The show ran for a little over a year, closing after 449 performances. Kaye went on national tour with Rock Hudson and the show opened in London in 1980 starring Keith Michell and Julia McKenzie (which went unrecorded) running for 165 performances. Kaye and Coca went on a bus and truck tour in the mid 80s with Frank Gorshin. However, the musical has only been seen in NY once since its original production, as a concert for the Actor's Fund in 2005 with Douglas Sills and Marin Mazzie. It seems highly unlikely, given the revival of Twentieth Century by Roundabout that there are any plans for a full-scale revival of the musical, but it's definitely a musical that deserves to be seen and heard.

Sarah, Noah and I had the great privilege earlier that very year of seeing Kaye perform the song "Never" at the Theatre World awards. The woman is, in short, a wonder. Anyone who saw her dynamo performance in the short-lived Souvenir can attest to that.

Here is the Tony Awards performance of the title song featuring the entire company:

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